Ever since the crazy-addictive croissant-like Nutella babka from Breads Bakery arrived on the scene in 2013, New York City has had a fever—and the only prescription is more babka.
As of late last week, Breads has some new competition:A fierce contender has arrived on the babka playing field in the form of baker Melissa Weller, a Roberta's and Per Se alum who's captaining the pastry squad at the just-opened Torrisi "appetizing" restaurant Sadelle's in Soho. There, she's turning out loaves of perfectly marbleized babka in chocolate and raisin walnut varieties that are rich but still pillowy.
Weller's version is a bit of a throwback to the babkas of yore. She ditched the laminated (read: croissant-ish) style that's become so popular in recent years for a more traditional challah-like loaf with ribbons of filling. "Part of me wanted to jump on the [laminated] bandwagon, but I'm really happy I went in this direction," Weller says.
For inspiration, she trekked to the legendary Wall's Bake Shop in the Five Towns on Long Island two years ago, where she bought one of everything. "They thought I was crazy," Weller jokes. She, of course, did her due diligence and tried numerous babkas in the city, including ones from Breads, Arcade, and Russ & Daughters, but she says she was most inspired by a phantom babka from her past. "I had a babka years ago that's still in my memory . . . but I can't remember where it came from."
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To create her take on it, she and her team tested more than 100 variations to find the perfect gooey-to-marbleization ratio. Surprisingly, the dough came together quickly. "I'm sort of embarrassed to say it's a regular babka dough. I looked at Smitten Kitchen's recipe, and I think she based hers off of Martha Stewart's recipe," Weller says.
The real challenge was the filling. The secret, Weller says, is mixing chocolate shortbread crumbs with loads of milk chocolate and just the right amount of semisweet chocolate to balance the butter in the dough and keep the loaf from collapsing on itself.
Making the loaves is a long process. From start to finish (including some rising and fermenting time), the babkas take two and a half days to make. Right now, the team is baking only 35 a day, but since Sadelle's sold out on day one, Weller has already placed an order for more pans to keep up with demand.
Of course, the babka isn't the only thing drawing lines outside Sadelle's. Weller is bringing back traditional, hand-rolled bagels, too; is baking rugelach; and has staffers dressed in white coats slicing long, translucent slices of lox that—because the Torrisi team never does anything halfway—get layered onto a massive smoked-fish English tea tower.
We can only hope a babka croquembouche is next.